It’s hoped that over the coming weeks and months we can post several stories relating to the 1913 Lockout, looking at some of the key events and characters in brief posts which should serve as an introduction to the event and the protagonists. This brief post looks at an unusual aspect of the story of William Martin Murphy, leader of the employers in that great dispute.
More out of laziness than anything else I’ve always believed, the 1913 Lockout has often been spoken of as some sort of ‘dress rehearsal’ for the 1916 Rising. The Lockout was not a dress rehearsal for anything however, but rather it is a hugely important moment in Irish history in its own right, representing the greatest ideological battle between labour and capital in Irish history.
While ‘Big Jim’ continues to hold a central place in the popular memory and folklore of Dublin, William Martin Murphy is a figure many Dubliners are unfamiliar with in any detail. Murphy was an incredibly complex character, and his own politics were actually of an Irish nationalist type.
The eldest son of a Co.Cork building contractor named Dennis William Murphy, he was born in 1845. Educated at Belvedere College in Dublin, he worked in the offices of the Irish Builder and The Nation publications as a young man. Patrick Maume writes in his biographical entry on Murphy for the Dictionary of Irish Biography that:
In 1863 Murphy inherited the family business on the death of his father. In 1867 he moved to Cork, where in 1870 he married Mary Julia Lombard, daughter of a prominent Cork businessman, James Fitzgerald Lombard (qv). They had five sons and three daughters, whose marriages (notably with the Chance family) strengthened Murphy’s political and business alliances. His success was based on building light railways in the south and west of Ireland; he also became involved in running these railways, sat on several boards, and facilitated the merger that created the Great Southern and Western Railway.
Padraig Yeates notes in his history of the Lockout that Murphy displayed “an entrepreneurial talent rare for Ireland in that era and developed an expertise in constructing light rail and tramway systems.”
Murphy was elected as an MP for the Irish Parliamentary Party for St Patrick’s, Dublin at the 1885 general election. Following the split in the party, Murphy sided with the Anti-Parnellites, which cost him in Dublin, a city which remained loyal to the fallen leader. In 1900, he purchased a fledgling Parnellite newspaper the Irish Daily Independent from the Parnellites, merging it with the Daily Nation. This move gave birth to the Irish Independent, a paper still with us today. By the time of his death in 1919, Yeates estimates that “he had accumulated a fortune of over £250,000, had built railways and tramway systems in Britain, South America and West Africa, and owned or was a director of many Irish enterprises, including Clery’s department store, the Imperial Hotel and the Metropole Hotel”.
Murphy was central to the organisation of the International Exhibition in 1907, an incredible six month extravaganza that brought the world to Herbert Park. Martin Murphy had been involved in this process from the very beginning, and Ken Finlay writes about the central role he played in meetings in 1904 where the idea of bringing such an exhibition to Dublin was first put forward. In his history of the International Exhibition, Finlay notes that the proposal “that a subcommittee be appointed to prepare an outline scheme for the proposed Irish International Exhibition, dealing with the question of site, character of buildings, general characteristics, probable cost and means of financing the enterprise” was put forward by William Martin Murphy.
The exhibition was a roaring success, and Yeates notes that “he earned almost universal praise for his organisation of the International Exhibition of 1907, which was the high point of the visit to Dublin that year by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.” The Exhibition was officially opened by King Edward VII, in the presence of William Martin Murphy and other organisers. The financial support of Murphy had been crucial to the exhibition, with £12,500 forthcoming from his tram company for the Guarantee Fund at the inception of the project. So crucial was Murphy to the overall project, that at the completion of the event a dinner was held in his honour.
Unsurprisingly given his leading role in the organising of this huge event, a knighthood of Murphy was proposed. It is often noted that “Murphy was a committed nationalist and refused a knighthood from King George VII of England on this principle” (see this article from Irish Central). Yeates notes however that “some of Murphy’s enemies said that he only took on the job in the hope of winning a knighthood. Stung by the allegation, Murphy declared that in no circumstances would he accept a title, even if one were offered to him.” It was said that the King proposed to knight Murphy on the site of the International Exhibition, and that “to everyone’s surprise and embarrassment” this was refused by Murphy. Patrick Maume notes in the Dictionary of Irish Biography that Murphy “could not accept honours while home rule was denied.”
This refusal to accept the Knighthood in 1907 shows the complexity of the character of William Martin Murphy, an ‘establishment’ figure who led the employers in Dublin in their offensive against what they saw as the threat of Larkinism, yet Murphy himself identified as an Irish nationalist.
By 1913, with the banning of a public meeting on Sackville Street, Jim Larkin was accusing the King of England of trying to stop meetings “at the order of Mr.Murphy”
I care as much for the King as I do for Mr. Swifte the magistrate. People make kings and people can unmake them; but what has the King of England to do with stopping a meeting in Dublin? If they like to stop the meeting at the order of Mr. Murphy, Mr. Wm. Murphy will take the responsibility; and, as I have previously told you, for every man that falls on our side two will fall on the other.